Debate On Whether To Send U.S. Special Forces Back Into Iraq

Published: .
Updated: .

Islamic militants attacked Iraq's largest oil refinery late Tuesday, hours after it was shut down due to the threat and its foreign staff were evacuated, an Iraqi security official told the Associated Press.

The al Qaeda splinter group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began their attack late Tuesday night, but fighting continued Wednesday morning, the official said. There were unconfirmed reports that the militants had managed to gain control of much of the refinery compound.

The refinery in Beiji processes Iraqi oil into gasoline and other products for domestic consumption, and officials have said there are sufficient petroleum products stockpiled to last the nation weeks, but the attack on the key oil infrastructure highlights the threat posed by ISIS to the north and west of Baghdad.

The Sunni Muslim militants of ISIS overran two major Iraqi cities last week, facing little opposition from government security forces who simply fled in many cases to safer areas in the north.

Mosul and Tikrit are still controlled by ISIS and allied tribal militias, and many of the residents in the cities -- which sit in Iraq's central Sunni heartland -- have welcomed the fighters. The Shiite-led government of President Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad is deeply unpopular in many Sunni areas of Iraq.

The violence of the past week and a half is indisputably sectarian, and ISIS was able to push its bloody bombing campaign into the heart of Baghdad on Tuesday, where a blast killed at least 12 people as it tore through a crowded market in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City.

CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward says the streets of Baghdad are full of security forces Wednesday morning, and thousands of Shiites have volunteered to join sectarian militias, holding big rallies daily in the capital. Some of the fighters told CBS News they consider it a sacred duty to defend their city from the ISIS militants.

But Gen. Saad Ma'an, a spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry, which is in charge of national security, denied to Ward that Iraq is in the midst of a sectarian civil war. He said arming volunteer Shiite militias was a dangerous idea.

"We don't have militias," insisted Ma'an.

"You do have militias, I've seen them with my own eyes," challenged Ward, who then quickly listed three of the groups which CBS News has seen mustering civilian fighters.

"We have tribes," countered Ma'an, before attempting to play down the sectarian roots of the current bloodshed. "We must liberate Iraq... Iraq for Sunni and for Shiite and for Christian."

But in the first ominous sign that Shiites were launching reprisal attacks against Sunnis in Iraq, nearly four dozen Sunni detainees were gunned down at a jail north of Baghdad on Tuesday by Shiite militiamen defending the police station which came under attack by ISIS fighters.

President Obama wants to send a small contingent of U.S. Special Forces into Iraq for the first time since the U.S. military pulled out of the country to help train and advise the domestic forces.

There were reports Wednesday morning that President Obama was not expected to approve imminent airstrikes in the country, however, due to the fact that no clear targets could be readily identified.

President Obama's administration has considered airstrikes to help the Iraqi government counter the ISIS threat, and the reports said he had not ruled the option out in the longer term.

The U.S. military has positioned significant assets in the Persian Gulf, including attack helicopters, jet fighters and battle ships with missiles easily capable of hitting targets in Iraq.